Why discipline fails, and what we need to do instead


Let me start with a simple formula for how life unfolds that I got many years ago from Active Parenting.


Events can be real, imagined or remembered. Anything kids say or do is an event for us, and what we say and do is for them. The human brain is always trying to make sense of things, and in particular spot threats. The result is the thoughts we constantly generate. Those sometimes give rise to e-motion, or energy to move. That energy is designed to help us get what we want and need. Emotions like anger and anxiety can help us deal with real threats. They are the two halves of our fight or flight response. Unfortunately, human beings can needlessly plug into the fight or flight responses because of the way they choose to look at things before, while and after things happen. It’s happened millions of time throughout human history, and still does. Shame, guilt and even depression can act like counterbalances to this, and it’s probably why we still have them, in spite of the damaging role they so often play in peoples’ lives. There are times when people needlessly generate these emotions as well, and too much of them.


There are three sayings that stem from the formula above:

* Thoughts cause feelings, not events

* A person’s behavior will follow his emotions toward his life events 

* Attitude is always the father of behavior

These 3 statements explain why traditional discipline approaches and consequences don’t work. They don’t change a student’s thoughts or attitudes about themselves, others and life for the better, and instead cause students to cling to them, or even double down on their ways of looking at things.

Adults often rightfully say "That kid has an attitude problem. That is a correct and valuable assessment. Many students do have attitudes about themselves, others and life that father behavior that's not good for them, and unacceptable to us. Their behavior typically won't change until their attitudes do, and consequences usually don't accomplish that. Consequences give students reasons to try to change their behavior, but they don't teach students how to deal with the thoughts that so quickly pop into their heads at the slightest provocation, and that turn their emotional thermostats up. The way our actions interact with their thoughts and attitudes often give them reason to turn their thermostats up instead.


I like to use the term “dysfunctional amount of emotion”. As I noted, e-motion can be helpful energy to move, but people often generate:

1) more than is helpful or necessary

2) more than they want to have

3) more than is healthy for them,

4) more than they know what to do with

5) a type and amount that works against them instead of for them (as emotion was intended to).

I'm betting these describe any troubled and troublesome students you have to routinely deal with in your school. Anger, anxiety, depression, shame and guilt usually represent a dysfunctional amount of emotion because people too often do all kinds of things that are unhealthy, self-defeating, unacceptable to others, and even sometimes self-destructive when they generate such emotions.

Anger, which is like emotional nitroglycerin. That’s the way nature intended it to be to deal with real threats to our lives. It's the fight half of our fight or flight response. However, as I noted above, too often people manufacture threats where they don’t exist, or magnify ones that do, and get angry needlessly. Both students and teachers do this. Anger contributes greatly to misbehavior in students and causes teachers to often mismanage conflicts that arise with them. It can make otherwise smart people do downright stupid things. Even worse, the false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection anger affords both teachers and students can preclude them from seeing the "error of their ways".


A dysfunctional amount of emotion makes people more likely to react to life events. They become less response-able, or less able to respond in the best possible way. They lose their response-ability. That’s true whether they are a teacher or student. When generating a dysfunctional amount of emotion, people are less likely to consider consequences before acting. That’s especially true with anger and anxiety. If we were faced with real threats to our lives, reacting would be helpful, possibly even life-saving. As they say, “He who hesitates is lost”. However, the problem, as noted above, is that people wrongly and needlessly perceive threats where they don’t exist, and magnify ones that do out of proportion to reality simply by the way they choose to look at things.

When generating a dysfunctional amount of emotion, it’s harder for people to access and act on helpful advice and information they may be given. For example, “Just ignore it” and “Don’t let them get to you” is often good advice, but hard to act on when you’re making yourself angry. People are more likely to have “mistaken” goals that get them off course from where they might really want to go in their lives. They will often even violate their own morals and values when generating a dysfunctional amount of emotion. Finally, it makes it harder for them to function at levels they are capable of, and that they and others might want them to. This should all sound familiar to any educator who’s dealt with chronic academic or discipline problems in students. It might also sound familiar to any administrator who has to deal with a teacher who overreacts to what students do.


Adults often wonder "Why do kids do things like that?" The answer is always the same - something you usually learn in your first psychology class. Behavior starts and continues because it serves a purpose. It's always goal-orientated. Unfortunately, people often have what Rudolph Dreikurs called "mistaken" goals that get them off course from getting those things we all really want, i.e. longevity, success, happiness, good relations, freedom and control over our own destiny. They get some immediate gratification from satisfying their mistaken goals, but make getting what they really want less likely in the long run. When people have mistaken goals for too long, they often lose sight of the "prize", or what they really want.


Dreikurs said that when students misbehave, they have one or more of four “mistaken” goals: Attention, Power and Control, Revenge, Avoidance of Failure. The word "mistaken" is perfect because students often achieve their "mistaken" goals, i.e. thinking they showed the teacher they can't be controlled, but make getting what they might really want less likely in the long run, i.e. getting along with teachers and doing well in school. It's why consequences often don't achieve the desired effect. The impact of the consequences gets trumped by the reward of achieving a "mistaken" goal by misbehaving in some way. I often heard teachers contend that misbehaving students like doing what they do. My position has always been that they don't like it, they settle for it, because they believe they can't get what they would really like, what they see so many other kids around get, which seems to come so easily for others. There's an old saying, "If you can't be good, at least be good at it". Most chronic misbehaving students are very good at what they do. My mentor always said that we have bachelors and masters degrees in teaching, but misbehaving kids have PhD's in doing what they do.

Mistaken goals are really just a thought, or a combination of thoughts. These thoughts simultaneously give rise to a purpose and e-motion, or energy to move. This e-motion ends up driving the behavior intended to satisfy a “mistaken” goal. Attention-seeking behavior tends to be driven by loneliness and rejection; Power and Control and Revenge behavior by anger; Avoidance of Failure behavior by shame, guilt and anxiety. An additional mistaken goal often comes into play, especially with drug-related offenses – Withdrawal-Avoidance-Relief. Students seek to withdraw from or avoid unpleasantness in their lives, and to get relief from the feelings that go with it. Smoking, drinking and using drugs, and even self-harm and suicide can have this “mistaken” goal (and others as well).


Generating a dysfunctional amount of emotion is what often gives purpose to behavior we don’t like. For example, the more anxiety, shame, guilt and depression a young person generates, the more purpose it will serve in his/her life to smoke, drink or use drugs, and the more suicide might even start to seem like a good idea.

This is why the War on Drugs has largely been a failure. Drugs continue to serve a purpose in tens of millions of peoples’ lives, and that creates demand. As long as there is a demand, there will be people who will be willing to do whatever it takes to satisfy that demand, either in themselves or others. There will continue to be a demand as long as people continue to generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion.


There is always an “irrational logic” to behavior that we don’t like in students. By that I mean that what they say and do is irrational because it makes their lives worse instead of better, either by their own hand, or by others. However, what they do makes more sense when we learn how they think and feel. When any human being thinks and feels certain ways, behaving in certain ways, even unhealthy, self-defeating or self-destructive ways, will seem logical to them.


Many kids come to school with a history of tough life experiences, some of which could easily have triggered their fight or flight responses. Adults can be pretty scary to young children. So they may already have strong tendencies to generate anxiety, and even anger, the two halves of fight or flight. They will be more likely than others to be quick to see threats where they may not really exist, or magnify any that might out of proportion to reality. Many of those same early experiences could also have told them repeatedly that they didn’t live up to adult expectations, and they could easily have strong tendencies to feel shame and guilt as well.


Shame, guilt, anxiety and anger are connected in some important ways. Low self-esteem, which is well recognized as something that gets in the way of students succeeding in schools, is really just shame about the past, and anxiety about the future because of it. When kids have been told repeatedly, and believe they haven’t lived up to expectation in the past, either academically or behaviorally, they are more likely to imagine they won’t in the future. Everyday life events can seem like bigger threats than they really are or need to be.

Shame and guilt often play out as anger and anxiety because of this. Kids are more likely to plug into fight or flight needlessly. I like to say you get either “turtles” (or sometimes jackrabbits) or “rattlesnakes”. Some kids will suck into their shells (or run away), and others will coil, rattle, and even strike out at others, both teachers and other students. Both responses are purely defensive in nature, just like they are in the real animals.  

The “turtles” are frustrating for teachers trying to help kids learn, but the “rattlesnakes” are the ones we too often make mistakes with. Too often we take offense at their posturing rather than see it as defensive, and simply their response to perceive threats. What we end up doing to them too often is like poking a real rattler with a stick. That never ends well for either party with real rattlers, and doesn’t when we do the equivalent of it with our student “rattlers”.


Some kids could even have experienced a lot of rejection, and even feel significant loneliness. This loneliness might cause them to seek inordinate amounts of attention from others, perhaps in unacceptable ways. I grew up hearing “negative attention is better than none at all”. That’s an accurate description of what teachers often have to deal with. Such students past experiences can make them overly sensitive to rejection should their efforts fail or be punished in some way. This predisposition is like an accident looking for a place to happen in classrooms where so much is often going on socially.  


Kids come to school with many pre-existing cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts” from practicing and rehearsing thoughts, feelings and actions many times before we encounter them. “Ruts” make thoughts, feelings and actions automatic. That can be helpful or unhelpful, depending on what thoughts, feelings and actions the “ruts” give rise to. What they think, feel or do is always understandable given their life experiences, even if it's not helpful, and is unacceptable to us. If we “walked a mile in their shoes”, we’d probably think, feel, say and do much what they did. If we were to watch a movie of their life experiences, we’d see the understandable reasons for what they think, feel, and do, even if we don’t like it.

Unfortunately, many kids come to us with “ruts” for feeling lonely, rejected, getting angry and anxious, feeling ashamed or guilty, or even depressed, and for being prone to have mistaken goals. Dreikurs contended they move through this sequence, ultimately ending up at avoidance of failure. Avoidance of failure is why kids shut down, stay home, and end up dropping out. Some kids already have made this progression before coming to school. Others will when their behavior gets mismanaged, which unfortunately, it too often does. Alfred Adler said, "A problem is a misbehavior that gets mismanage". It happens much too often. 

The reason is that teachers and schools are often too quick to punish what they don't like. The goal is too often simply to get kids “to behave” instead of help them with issues they struggle with in their own minds. Too often teachers and administrators also have their own dysfunctional "ruts" from their own past, i.e. how they were parented, that cause them to turn their emotional thermostats up too quickly, and overreact to what students do. They also are often too quick to adopt the “mistaken” goals of power and control, and even revenge – and to try to “teach this kid a lesson”. Mix this with an angry kid who is also quick to adopt the same mistaken goals, and we’ve got a disaster looking for a place to happen, and the recipe for a kid ending up in the school to prison pipeline.


Teachers too often see behavior they don’t like as simply a problem to eliminate. Behavior is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more beneath the surface that’s important and needs to be identified and addressed. Behavior we don’t like is also a symptom – a symptom of thoughts and feelings students are struggling with, and need help with.  Dr. David Amen says people have Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) and says that people often have ANT problems. Many kids have ANT problems. Typical discipline and consequences don’t help them with their ANT problems, and often just make them worse.

Too often the way teachers react to student misbehavior (which itself can be a largely subjective term) is like a doctor being quick to prescribe the same treatment for everyone who comes to him, without ever taking a patient history, or assessing his patients symptoms. And when the treatment doesn’t work, he simply prescribes more of the same treatment, and larger and more frequent doses. What would we think of a doctor who did that?


Let me give you a simple example. Suppose a kid has these two attitudes “rutted” in his brain from earlier interactions with his parents or previous teachers:

"You can't tell me what to do"

"You can’t do that to me”.

They would be his automatic response to anything we say or do to him, perhaps even the most innane things. He would be quick to adopt the “mistaken” goal of Power and Control because of these thoughts. Having these attitudes and adopting this mistaken goal would be understandable if he had parents, or prior teachers who overreacted emotionally and behaviorally to what he did many times before.

So we tell him what to do, perhaps even in much the same way his parents and other teachers did. His natural impulse will be to react with “You can’t tell me what to do”. We dispense some consequence, perhaps much like those he’s been given many times before. His natural impulse is to think “You can’t do that to me”. He quickly becomes angry and adopts the mistaken goal of power and control. He defies us, or even does exactly what we told him not to, just to prove a point. We give him another command, or even another consequence.  

Is he going to “learn his lesson”? Or get worse? That’s the problem with consequences. We have no control over what someone ends up thinking (learning) in response, and what they do is often some rutted, automatic negative thought, or irrational belief. He quickly goes to full “rattlesnake” mode, and may even start striking out verbally, or even physically. Anger is like emotional nitroglycerin. It’s going to be hard for him to not explode in some way.


Many teachers have their own unhelpful cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts”. Some have ANT problems as well. One could say some teachers also havve an "attitude problem" in that the attitudes they bring to the job make them more likely to get into needless conflicts or power struggles with students. An example might be “These kids have to do what I tell them to”. Actually they don’t, and that’s why it’s an irrational and unhelpful thought or attitude for a teacher to have. Having that thought creates a bigger gap between the teacher’s expectations and what kids do, if and when they do things the teacher doesn’t like. With that mindset, a teacher can easily make him/herself angry, and say and do things that keep creating opportunities for their ANTs to butt heads with the student’s.


Behavior won’t change as long as the attitudes fathering it remain the same. The problem with “ruts” is that once they get created, you can’t get rid of them. You can only make new ones, and hope they compete for use with the old ones. People can keep plugging into their old ones, and usually do. It’s hard for anyone to stay out of old their old “ruts”, even if plugging into them leads to outcomes they don’t like. That’s true whether it’s a student or teacher. It’s why kids keep getting in the same kinds of trouble, and teachers double down on consequences even if they don’t work. Everyone is reacting instead of responding to what’s happening. Nature intended for us to be reactive when we perceive threats. The problem, as noted earlier, is that people keep wrongly and needlessly perceiving threats where they don’t exist, and magnifying any that do out of proportion to reality. A teacher’s comment, school work, or a kid back talking to a teacher is not a real threat to anyone’s life. However, both sides keep wrongly “making mountains out of mole hills”, as my grandparents used to say.


Over time, both teachers and students develop what Dr. Alex Molnar calls these “frozen” perceptions. Teachers have them about students, students about teachers and themselves. Other students can develop “frozen” perceptions about chronically misbehaving students, and misbehaving students about them. This are what Dr. Albert Ellis called “labeling and damning”. For example, “This kid is a punk”, “Teachers are jerks”. Dr. Molnar contends that when we have chronic problems situations, these “frozen” perceptions are a big part of the problem. Einstein said, “You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it”.


Remember all kids come to us with cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts” that make their thoughts, feelings and actions automatic - which is good news in some cases, and bad news in others. “Ruts” are why people recreate their pasts, and their histories can become their destinies. That can be good news or bad news as well depending on what their histories are. Students with crummy histories will tend to recreate their crummy pasts, and will invite teachers to help them do so. It’s like they’re producing a play, and invite teacher to try out for a part in that play. A teacher’s own “ruts” can cause them to jump at the opportunity. Teachers will often think they had the “upper hand” in a conflict when they were really just helping a student recreate their crummy past. Sometimes the job of being a teacher requires that we protect kids from themselves. One way to do that is to not let them entice us into joining their efforts to recreate their crummy pasts.


Anger often gets generated on both sides of teacher-student conflicts. As noted earlier, anger is emotional nitroglycerin. It’s as hard to handle as the real nitroglycerin was in those old westerns many of us watched as kids. Nature intended it to be explosive to deal with real threats to our lives. The problem has always been, as noted multiple times already, that human beings of all ages needlessly plug into fight or flight because they needlessly manufacture threats, or magnify ones that do exist by the way they choose to look at things.

Think of the Incredible Hulk’s problem. You have this brilliant, mild mannered scientist who just wants to do the right things and help people. But he “hulks out” when he gets angry, and it’s “smash time”. Lots of damage gets done, and Banner regrets it later, but it makes sense at the time to the Incredible Hulk to do what he does. In the same way, anger can make otherwise smart teachers (and students) say and do stupid things, even things they might regret later. It’s why I call anger the #1 enemy of effectiveness for teachers.

An additional problem, also noted earlier, is that anger gives anyone a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection while they are generating it. This makes it unlikely that an angry person will reflect on what is transpiring at the time, or even afterward if they remain angry. It precludes a person from seeing the “error of their ways” – be it a student or teacher.  


First, teachers have to always get into, and stay in the best possible mental and emotional place, regardless of what students say and do. We always need at least one adult in the room.  If a student goes ballistic, the last thing we need is a teacher going with him. Remember, anger can make otherwise smart people do stupid things. My REBT mentor always said, “Anything you can do when angry, you can do better when you’re not”. That’s especially true when trying to address student behavior you don’t like. We want to strive for what Dr. Robert Marzano calls “emotional objectivity” and the key to it is mindset.

By the way, that old adage that when you get angry, it’s better for your health to let it out instead of keep it in is false. The research has shown that there are no real differences health-wise between those who get angry and let it out, or those who keep it in. The only people who fare better health wise are those who don’t make themselves angry in the first place. So please don’t think giving a kid a “piece of your mind” when angry does you any good.

Some teachers have cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts” that make them naturals at dealing with misbehaving students. Others have “ruts” that will cause them to make matters worse. In medicine, there’s a first do no harm rule – if you can’t make it better, at least don’t make it worse. Too often, that’s exactly what some teachers do. You can always easily escalate a minor conflict into WWIII if you’re not careful. This is especially true because kids have a tendency to recreate their crummy pasts. Some teachers have more of a tendency to escalate conflicts than others. Anyone can learn to stop doing that.


There are some “tools” teachers can acquire that can help them develop “emotional objectivity”. With practice and rehearsal, they can get pretty good at applying them to fix anything that get broken, and build something better for themselves and their students.

1)      Learning to have UOA or Unconditional Other Acceptance for students

2)      Developing an internal locus of control

3)      Recognizing your own ANTs, or automatic negative thoughts (aka automatic irrational beliefs)

4)      Practicing correcting your irrational thinking until doing so becomes “rutted” and automatic, creating in your brain the equivalent of grammar check on a computer

5)      Make a habit of always using I Messages when conflicting with students

6)      Having a THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat visual to help you to be more aware of, and evaluate your thoughts, feelings and actions at any given moment

First and foremost, you want to acquire these “tools” for your own mental and physical health sake. Become proficient at using them for that reason, and you will naturally become more effective with students, especially the most troublesome ones.  For example, getting angry can reinforce behavior you don’t like. If a student wrongly believes that he/she makes you angry, and you do too, that gives him/her a false of power and control over you. They often will be willing to absorb any consequences you impose to get that false sense of power and control, and are more likely to repeat or even escalate the behavior you don’t like to get it. That’s especially true if they have a deep sense of powerlessness, as many misbehaving students do. By learning to have control over your emotional thermostat, and keeping it turned down, you not only help your own mental and emotional health, but you protect the student from him/herself.

You can read about these “tools”, what they entail, and how to acquire them at:


There’s an article on this blog for how to construct a THINK-FEEL-DO thermostat model:


It's helpful to have a simple visual to see where you are at any given moment emotionally and behaviorally, and why you're there - what thoughts put you there. Then you can see where you might want to be instead emotionally and behaviorally, and what it will take to get there in terms of mindset.


We will never get anywhere with students if they’re angry. So the first goal should always be to get them to calm down. That’s something only they can do, but we want to make sure we don’t throw fuel on their fire. Fires will burn themselves out if we don’t keep adding fuel to them. However, when they let go of their anger, they will often start feeling ashamed, guilty, anxious or even depressed. When they do, they will often rekindle their anger to protect themselves from these feelings. Expect it. Allow for it. Don’t take it personal. Be patient and persevere with what you were doing before they rekindled their anger.


There is absolutely nothing wrong with setting limits. Kids need them, and so do schools. And there's nothing wrong with having consequences to encourage students to stay within those limits. But consequences should always be RELATED, REASONABLE and dispensed in a RESPECTFUL way. Those of the 3 R's of consequences. Too often they're not because teacher or administrators get angry and overreact to what students do. Consquences given in anger are punishment, and kids sense it when they are. Then they adopt the mistaken goals of power and control, and/or revenge.

That said, consequences will not address the underlying causes of behavior we don't like - the thoughts and feelings kids have about themselves, others, life and what's happened to them. Consequences only give them reason to change the way they behave. They don't teach them how to. They don't teach them how to better manage the thoughts that cause their feelings (which in turn drive their behavior) or the attitudes that father their behaviors. We have to do more. 


This is getting long, so I’ll simply urge all teachers or administrators to take the steps I’ve outlined in the “Tool Time” Approach I developed for the most troubled and troublesome students in my wife’s school. We have to teach troubled and troublesome students how to better manage what goes on inside their own heads. Your typical discipline approach doesnt' do that. We have to teach them to have control over their emotional thermostats. They too have to be able to get into the best possible mental and emotional place to function at the levels they are capable of, and that we and they want them to. As long as their emotional thermostats stay turned up, they'll be reactive instead of response-able. They'll be more likely to have "mistaken" goals, and behaving in unhealthy, unacceptable, self-defeating or even self-destructive ways will continue to serve a purpose in their lives. As long as their behavior serves a purpose, it will continue, and usually be unresponsive to discipline interventions. We have to help them combat the deep sense of powerlessness they typically have, as well as the shame that can play out in so many unhelpful ways. These are things the Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life does. This “tool kit” is what the "Tool Time" approach is based on.

You can read about the twelve steps (it's not a twelve step program) at:


It’s important to remember that if we keep doing what we, and others, have always done with troubled and troublesome students, we’ll keep getting what we, and others, have always gotten. We’ve got to do something different. The “Tool Time” approach is. One beauty of the approach is that you don’t have to be a counselor, social worker or therapist to pull it off.  It involves simple steps that anyone can take. We need "all hands on deck" in dealing with our most troubled and troublesome students. Those things that work best happen when everyone is on the same page. It does no good to have one teacher, counselor or administrator working with a student on these issues, while others are provoking or escalating conflicts with him/her, and helping him/her recreate his/her crummy past.

One of my favorite memories is when a kid named Dillon attended the first day of group. He was diagnosed oppositional defiant. I was told about he had a history of being quick to get into fights with all his teachers, so I definitely didn't want to say or do what they always had. So I did the first couple of steps of the "Tool Time" approach, like I always do, but made a point of making a lot of eye contact with him. As the group was leaving, and I was cleaning up some paperwork, I catch someone out of the corner of my eye. It's was Dillon. He offered his hand and said “Thanks for inviting me to be in your group”. My wife approached Dillon much the same way, and we both ended up having a great relationship with him. When you develop that kidn of relationship, you can challenge students more than others can. They'll take it from you because they believe you always have their best interest at heart.


I was taught and believe that the further into discipline we get the more positive it should become. The opposite typically happens. Discipline often gets increasingly negative, and teachers and school do more of the same more often, and for longer periods of time. The “Tool Time” approach is a way to make discipline more positive.

I was also taught “Look at your past, but don’t stare at it”. That’s exactly what most troubled and troublesome students get stuck doing – staring at their pasts, and recreating it. Typical discipline interventions encourage students to do it even more. The message is often “Look at what you’ve done AGAIN!”. The “Tool Time” approach is about their future, not their past. That’s another reason why it works much better.

Mindset is key to dealing with the most troubled and troublesome students. There’s an entire article on this site devoted to mindset. Here’s the link:


One of the mindsets I’ve always found helpful is that inside every troublesome kid is someone who just wants the same kind of life he sees others around him having, but has just never figured out how to get that, and has all kinds of “ruts” that get in the way. I always think of the term “Lost boys” from Peter Pan. We have a lot of lost boys, and girls as well. Our best hope is always to seek that kid out, and help him find his way. That will make our jobs easier, and more rewarding. I reached out to that part of that oppositional defiant student that day and he reached back. They will if we try.

On The Golden Boy, a TV cop drama, a veteran detective tells a rookie, “Inside every person are two doing fighting. One good, one bad. The one that wins is the one you feed the most” Too often we feed the wrong dog with the way we handle discipline in classroom and schools. We need to feed that other dog. The “Tool Time” approach does that. It’s how I got that good dog in that oppositional defiant student – which by the way was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career, the kind we all got into the profession for in the first place.